A coal plant came online at 9:20pm Tuesday, ending Britain’s longest stretch without burning coal in more than a century – after 18 days, 6 hours, and 10 minutes.
The National Grid Electricity Systems Operator (ESO) tweeted Tuesday that one of the UK’s six remaining coal plants had been fired “due to plant availability and system requirements.” Perhaps it was everyone tuning into Love Island, and firing up kettles during the adverts, that drove Britain back into the dark ages of coal.
But the streak, which began 17 May, was the UK’s longest uninterrupted period without using coal for electricity generation since 1882. It shattered the previous record of just over a week, logged only at the beginning of May.
During that period, the UK’s electricity needs were met with natural gas (40%), nuclear (20%), wind (13%), imports (11%), biomass (8%) and solar (7%), with small contributions from hydro power and storage.
And even after coal came back online Tuesday evening, coal provided just a fraction of Britain’s electricity. According to the UK_Coal Twitter account, the fuel contributed just 1.06% of the UK’s electricity Tuesday evening and by 9am Wednesday morning Britain had begun another coal-free run.
Experts say we should expect to see more of these coal-free streaks and even entirely coal-free summers, as Britain moves away from using the heavily polluting, carbon-intensive fossil fuel for energy.
Currently the National Grid uses fossil fuel generators to provide ancillary and balancing services, but many of these plants are due to shutter or be converted to burn renewables or store energy in batteries.
The UK has just six operational coal-fired plants—Drax, Cottam, West Burton, Aberthaw B, Fiddler’s Ferry and Ratcliffe—with all slated to close by 2025.
However, even during these coal-free periods, Britain continues to rely heavily on another fossil fuel—natural gas. And experts have warned that it may be harder to phase out natural gas from our electricity supply than coal.
However, the ESO has stated the National Grid will be ready for some zero-carbon operation by 2025, sidelining both coal and natural gas in favour of nuclear and renewables, when the weather permits.